Joyce McMillan: Why it’s time to panic about climate change

Markets are not capable of taking the long global view required to tackle climate change and politicians must take action or risk the future of humanity, writes Joyce McMillan.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 15, led a school strike to get politicians to act on climate change (Picture: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty)Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 15, led a school strike to get politicians to act on climate change (Picture: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty)
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 15, led a school strike to get politicians to act on climate change (Picture: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty)

A couple of weeks ago, a Swedish schoolgirl called Greta Thunberg gave a speech to the assembled global power-holders attending the World Economic Forum at Davos. Greta had already attracted some media attention for leading a school strike in Sweden, demanding radical action on climate change; and in Davos, she pulled no punches. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” she said to the assembled great ones. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Now of course, feeling the fear that Greta Thunberg feels every day is a tough discipline, particularly if your own home is not yet actually burning down. Psychologically, most of us are not up to it; and when it comes to climate change, the language of the threat seems so familiar from a dozen disaster movies, and so similar to the language surrounding other apocalyptic nightmares that have not materialised, that there is a kind of popular wisdom – particularly for Donald Trump and his admirers – in the idea that we should just ignore it. The current scepticism about scientists and experts only adds to the feeling that there’s probably nothing to panic about. And even if you are among the majority who believe the climate science is accurate, it’s tempting also to believe that it can’t possibly be quite so bad as most of the models suggest.

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And yet. Although throughout its history, humanity has cried wolf about various imagined apocalypses, the moral of the story about the boy who cried wolf is not that there was no wolf, but that when the wolf came, no one believed him. A two-degree average temperature rise may seem like a small thing, given temperatures can swing ten or 20 degrees between day and night; yet as Shakespeare’s Mercutio says of the apparently tiny stab-wound that kills him, it is a small thing, but it is enough.

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Already, with temperatures running at about one degree above the historic average, our climate is becoming more unstable, the polar vortex losing its coherence, oceans warming and rising, coral-reefs dying, and vulnerable species struggling to survive. This week, the Met Office predicted that the Paris Agreement target temperature for the manageable limit to global warming, 1.5 degrees, may be breached, temporarily, within the next five years. And scientists observing the world’s major ice-sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are concerned that they are already seeing changes, in the thinning and destabilisation of ice, that they also thought were decades away.

These ice sheets, needless to say, contain enough water to inundate almost every major coastal city on earth. And if global warming continues at anything like its present rate, then it would be foolish to assume that most babies born this year will survive beyond the age of 40 or 50, so likely are they to die in the mass starvation, social breakdown and violence that would result from such a rapid and worsening climate collapse.

So what should we do? If we do not believe these predictions, we take no action, and wait for the “experts” to be proved wrong. If we do believe them, though, the decisions are harder; indeed there are many environmental campaigners who believe that those who accept the climate science, but then take laughably inadequate steps to respond to it, are now more of a problem than the outright deniers. Some who accept the figures think we have already passed the tipping-point of irreversible global warming. Others believe that a technological fix will be found. Some believe that small, voluntary personal gestures are the key to carbon reduction, when all the evidence suggests that our only hope lies in massive, compulsory, co-ordinated and doubtless unpopular government action; look at the row currently raging over Scotland’s proposed workplace parking tax, for a tiny microcosm of the carbon-reduction struggles ahead. Some think Scotland should exploit its still massive marine reserves of oil and gas to fund the transition to a sustainable economy; others think every remaining barrel of fossil fuel must now be left in the ground, if humankind is to have any future at all.

To which all that can be said is that the climate science seems highly credible, and that the predictions are dire; but that it is not in our nature as a species to despair, that we have a history of astonishing inventiveness under pressure, and that there is still a chance, at this moment, that we may be able to halt and even reverse the warming process, while some of our beautiful natural world is still intact.

Two things, though, now represent a waste of time that we absolutely cannot afford. One is the deliberate breaking of international and inter-cultural solidarity at a moment when we can only succeed if we act together, as a species, to save our biological home; destructive processes like Britain’s confused and reactionary Brexit, or the defiant election of climate-change deniers like Donald Trump and new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, represent rebellions against reality that fritter away precious years in childish and vicious political distractions.

And the other is the burned-out neoliberal ideology which suggests that strong government is a bad thing, and that it should stand back and let markets do their work. If one thing is clear, it’s that markets in their present form are not capable either of taking the long global view climate action requires, or of initiating the rapid and decisive change of economic model that will be necessary, if we are to leave the age of carbon behind in the next decade or two. Because if there is one thing we seem about to learn again, in the age of climate crisis, it’s that politics is anything but a game; and that those who seek to weaken our systems of government now, at national, international or global level, are not only risking the lives of billions, but also playing roulette with the future of life itself, on what is still our miraculous blue planet.